Madeira Island has more to offer than just only the Levadas. Did you know that the island has a hidden walking network of more than 325km in length … the so called Royal Roads (Caminhos Reais). In the past these royal roads were the only way to connect the different points of Madeira.

According to the Madeirense Elucidário (an encyclopedic work on the archipelago of Madeira published in 1921), Madeira had the worst connection means in whole Portugal. This was due to a variety of causes and especially to the unlikely terrain, and to others conditions. Most of them did not deserve the name of roads, since in their generality they were narrow footpaths practiced in the soil, of very difficult floor, overlooking the unfathomable abysses and defending the flanks of high mountains, almost always offering to the travelers the most serious inconveniences and hazards.

Until 1901 there were only nine kilometers of good road, which put the city of Funchal in communication with the town of Câmara de Lobos. In the first decades of the XX century, the Junta Geral do Funchal (General Board of Funchal) sought to improve certain communication routes and establish others between different locations to provide the island with a good network of roads.

Caminho Real / Nacional N.º 23 (Seixal). Madeira

Caminho Real / Nacional N.º 23 (Seixal).
Source: João Francisco Camacho, Ilha da Madeira. Costa Norte, 1865 – 1875
Arquivo de Documentação Fotográfica / DDCI/DGPC.

The construction of these roads began from the beginning of the settlement on Madeira Island. They were the roads of that time and made the connection between the various localities, facilitating the movement of people and goods on the island. They functioned as an alternative to the maritime connections and were the only form of communication, by land, between the different settlements of the island. The designation of the “caminho real” (royal road), name given to these main routes built before the Portuguese Republic, in 1910, is due to the fact that whoever was responsible for its construction and maintenance was a local representative of the Portuguese Crown.

At present it is not known exactly how many of these paths existed or the totality of its extension, but it is estimated that the oldest circulation network of the island has an extension of 400 kilometers, many of them lost between the vegetation or the difficult orography of the islands, or hidden under more recent layers of history.

With the objective of enhancing the regional heritage and increasing the range of footpaths, the Regional Government of Madeira has begun a project to recover the former royal roads. It is an initiative carried out by the Regional Directorate of Forestry in collaboration with the Regional Directorate for Culture and the Regional Directorate for Tourism. The purpose, to return the splendor of some of these routes, but this time to value leisure.

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The recovery of these roads, most of them located at altitudes below 500 meters, aims to stimulate the dispersion of tourists and lovers of hiking and nature. These spaces have the advantage of crossing places that lie outside Laurissilva Forest, with many interesting areas.

The former royal roads are called national after the Republic was established in 1910, the most important of which were the numbers 23, 24, 25, 26, 27 and 28.

The Caminho Real (CR) nr 23 is the most iconic and certainly the most important. The first section was built in 1867, between Alfandega and Pontinha, with the objective to around the island of Madeira along the coast. It was a road designed to be used by people walking or, at best, by sleds pulled by oxen. It would go around the whole island, a route that anticipated what would one day become the EN 101, and later the ER 101.

Caminho Real n.º 27 (Curral das Freiras - Boaventura). Madeira

Caminho Real n.º 27 (Curral das Freiras – Boaventura).
Source: João Francisco Camacho, Ilha da Madeira. Grande Curral, 1870
Arquivo de Documentação Fotográfica / DDCI / DGPC

There were six royal roads built:

  • CR 23 (181 km): Funchal, Câmara de Lobos, Quinta Grande, Campanário, Ribeira Brava, Tábua, Ponta do Sol, Madalena do Mar, Arco da Calheta, Calheta, Estreito, Prazeres, Fajã da Ovelha, Ponta do Pargo, Achadas, Porto Moniz, Ribeira da Janela, Seixal, São Vicente, Ponta Delgada, Boa Ventura, Arco São Jorge, Santana, Faial, São Roque do Faial, Porto da Cruz, Machico, Santa Cruz, Porto Novo, Caniço, São Gonçalo, Funchal;
  • CR 24 (35 km): Funchal, Monte, Poiso, Ribeiro Frio, Cruzinha e Santana;
  • CR 25 (39 km): Funchal, São Martinho, Estreito de Câmara de Lobos, Jardim da Serra, Encumeada, Rosário e São Vicente;
  • CR 26 (13 km): Ribeira Brava, Serra de Água, Encumeada, São Vicente;
  • CR 27 (36 km): Funchal, Santo António, Curral das Freiras, Boaventura;
  • CR 28 (25 km): Ponta do Sol, Cruzinhas, Encumeada, border of Paul da Serra, Ruins of Casas do Paul, Estanquinhos, Caramujo, Feiteiras (São Vicente).

The maintenance of this network of roads forced hard work in those days on Madeira island, especially after the winter months, taking into account the rugged landscape of the island. That is why a tax, called a ‘roda de caminho‘ (road wheel), was imposed, which obliged the whole population to contribute with working days. The wealthy, however, could ‘escape’ the heavy labor by turning it into cash.

But these paths, that had great importance in that era, began to lose its value with the arrival of automobiles and the modern road network, throughout the 20th century. Most fell into abandonment and ruin. Currently, of the 28 footpaths recommended by the authorities (25 in Madeira and three in Porto Santo) only 12 were part of the Caminhos Reais. Nowadays these paths/roads are now considered public domain and of great value heritage for the island of Madeira.

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